The Tampa Bay Rays got to watch it all play out, enjoying life atop the American League as its only 100-win team, while its AL East rivals battled it out for Wild Card contention over the weekend.
And on Tuesday, the Rays watched the Boston Red Sox go in as home underdogs and earn a dominant win over the New York Yankees, advancing them to the AL Division Series.
“I watched with my wife Marisa, and, you know, they deserve to be here,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier on Wednesday told reporters. “They’re a really good team, and, you know, we beat them. They have beaten us throughout the year. I think it’s going to be a great matchup. … Got nothing but respect for the players over there. They’re a heck of a team, and it’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to it, and I think I’m speaking for everyone on our team.”
In 19 matchups, Tampa Bay takes the season series over Boston, 11-8. They’ve gone back and forth with a majority of their matchups in the second half of the season where the Red Sox struggled and lost their advantage in the division.
“They’ve made some improvements and some adjustments to the roster,” manager Kevin Cash told reporters Wednesday of the Red Sox. “Certainly from the deadline getting (Austin) Davis and, obviously, Kyle Schwarber, and then you look at a guy like Tanner Houck that is back pitching in different roles, whether it’s starter or reliever. He is pretty tough, and (Ryan) Brasier is a guy they’ve leaned on in their bullpen pretty heavily. The bullpen appears — has shifted a little bit, rightfully so, because it seems like they’re all talented whenever they’re called upon.”
Cash knows Boston’s bats will be up for the challenge too. Especially as underdogs, yet again.
He specifically mentioned Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Hunter Renfroe, Kiké Hernández and Schwarber, also bringing up Bobby Dalbec, who experienced quite the late surge at the plate.
“You got to shut down that offense away from top to bottom,” Cash said. “They are dangerous in many, many ways, and, you know, they don’t have a weak spot. They truly don’t. Our pitchers are definitely have their work cut out for them. On the flip side, too, they got a ton of quality arms over there. Some guys who can, you know, just go up and down the batting lineup and get out after out.”
Tampa will counter with a rookie pitcher in Game 1.
Shane McClanahan has three starts against the Red Sox this season with a 2.81 ERA in 16 innings pitched. The Rays have lost two of his starts, including the two most recent — but he went 1-1 on the mound with one no decision. Of the 15 hits he’s given up to Boston, one has left the park.
“I’ve learned they’re a very good team,” McClanahan told reporters Wednesday. “Obviously, they’re in the situation that they’re in because they’re a good team. They’re a selective team, but they’re aggressive when they need to be. You know, you definitely learn a lot about a team and where you face them. At the end of the day they learn more about you.”
Boston and Tampa start their best-of-five series Thursday at Tropicana Field, with first pitch set for 8 p.m. ET on FS1.
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